~ 3900 words
This time around, the woman looks us directly in the eye as she rips our chest open. We look down at our entrails flooding out, watch the world burn in hellfire around us, and all the while there is that voice and there is its song. We look up again and the woman is smiling and humming, and we begin to hum along, and in the madness in her eyes we see ourselves. We wake up screaming.
“The dreams are getting worse,” we say to Radha.
She isn’t listening. “They caught a witch in the lower village last night,” she says.
The witch was eating little children, they said, though no one in either half of the village was missing any. She was a widow who lived alone, farmed a fertile plot of land, and refused to sell it to the headman at a price of his choice.
“She squealed like a pig as she burned,” Baba giggles when we ask him. It was he who led the crowd to her house, then watched them strip and beat her. “But she didn’t back down, not once. A hard bitch, that one.”
Now all the children are safe, and the headman has built a high fence around the land that was once owned by a witch, and painted his name on it.
“Kishore lives in the lower village, doesn’t he?” we ask.
Radha turns pale and silent.
About the dreams.
They are all Chanda’s. It is her unending sleep that puts these images in our head. We expect to rise each day drenched in the blood that spills in them. The screams stay with us for days after, the severed heads and disemboweled bodies lurk everywhere we look – in the red of a woman’s sari, in the greasy yellow of the lentils we are given at mealtime, in Baba’s bloodshot eyes when the drink takes over. Yet we go about our day in silence, keep up the rituals and role-play that are our entire life.
We are Goddess. We live in a shrine on a barren hill, mute deity to a village split in two. News of our powers has ventured where we never will, far beyond the temple gates – people from across the district now flock to our threshold, trailing their sorrows behind them. They bring offerings – livestock, flowers, money, clothing – and hope these are bribe enough for our mercy. We offer them our benevolent gaze and the gestures they like to think of as our blessing, and accept the offerings that will find their way into Baba’s stomach and the village headman’s pocket. We also offer them the powders, salves and miracle drinks that we have supposedly blessed (though it is the hands of fifteen elderly women in the headman’s employ that actually make and pack them). The packets carry a little picture of us that shows all of our arms raised, all our eyes animated.
“We look like a spider.” Bindiya again.
The picture is a fake, but then so are we. Our powers, like the strength in our arms, are entirely an illusion.
“Liar,” says Bindiya. “You know what I see.”
This is true. Bindiya can look into people’s hearts, unearth the secrets they hide there, the thoughts they think they can hide behind their piety. These are not powers we wish to offer Baba and the headman.
“This one will not live to see the new moon,” Bindiya says of the old woman weeping at our feet for a cure to her wasting sickness. “Good riddance, she beats her daughter-in-law, the old bitch.”
For a goddess – or part of one – Bindiya is regrettably foul mouthed.
We bless the woman as we do everyone else: emptily.
“Thieving scoundrel!” Bindiya says of the police inspector who visits once a month to pray quite sincerely for his life and continued success, and then take his cut of the profits from the headman. He wants sons, the policeman, but his wife plagues him with daughters. We bless him with more.
There are three of us, though only two ever speak, and only one of us can be heard. We are lucky that voice is Muniya’s, whose tongue is gentle and whose fully formed face adorns the little plastic idols of us that are sold in the bazaar beyond the temple gates. Muniya’s body supports us too. Her arms move, allowing us to bless our devotees and eat our meals. Her legs, shriveled and crooked, allow us to limp across the temple compound that is our home and prison.
Bindiya is the loud one, the one who whines, makes fun of devotees and spits abuse. Bindiya’s is the shrunken face that nestles behind Muniya’s right ear, hers one pair of the arms that hang lifeless from our shoulders. Her eyes are little more than filmy blue slits, like gills in her squashed forehead.
The other head and pair of limp arms are Chanda’s.
Chanda sleeps. That is all she does. We know she is not dead because we feel her life coursing through our veins, and it is fragments of her dreams that haunt us for days. They weren’t always there; we remember a time when Chanda never dreamed. But something has changed now.
“Wake up, Chanda,” Muniya says. “Leave your dreams for a while. Talk to us.”
“Get up, lazy cow!” Bindiya snarls. “Pull your own useless weight.” As if she does any better.
It is also Chanda’s eye that sits sightlessly on our forehead, the one that convinced Baba we were a goddess when he first saw us. As if three heads were not reason enough.
“In a refugee camp,” he says. “The year after the Gas. The train I was on broke down outside Bhopal and I was walking along the tracks and there you were, just three months old, being displayed by that rogue for five rupees a viewing. ‘My wife needs medicine, my children are dying–’” Baba speaks in a strange high voice, mimicking the man we assume was our real father. “That lying drunk, ready to sell you for a bottle of booze.”
On good days, Baba closes his eyes and says, “One look and I knew what you were, my golden bird.”
On bad days, he will push us across the room or lay his cane across our back and say, “I should have left you to rot there, you wretched freak, like the rest of your filthy clan.”
There are no good days anymore.
Once a year, on a full moon night, the upper village gathers in the bazaar square outside the temple to celebrate our birth. It is the only time we are allowed past the temple gates, when we are carried in a procession through the entire upper village and up to the outskirts of the lower, then set down on a raised dais in the square while Baba tells the story of our birth. The lower village gathers too, but at a distance, in a corner marked by a frayed rope. They are unclean, Baba says; they defile us with their presence. They are fit only to clean our outhouses and mend our shoes. We look hard, but they look just like the upper villagers, only poorer. But we are goddess, and do not dare question Baba.
This is the story he tells, though it never seems to involve drunks, refugee camps or Gas.
The earth is Her mother and fire is Her father, and their mating was a fierce battle that shook the world. The mountains split open, then refolded to crush villages and bury kingdoms. The sea boiled and swelled, swallowed everything in its path. The very air was rent asunder. Earthquakes devastated the human world, volcanoes vented their anger. Insect blights plagued the world. Terror-struck but helpless, the gods stood watching.
“Haw! Disgusting! They were watching our parents mating!” Trust Bindiya to put that image in our head.
The gods wrung their hands and prayed, waiting for the end. Just when they thought everything was over, the earth shuddered one last time – Baba always gives a demonstration here, the high point of every performance – and separated from fire. But not before he had slipped his seed into her womb.
“He makes you sound like a guava, Muniya,” giggles Radha, Baba’s daughter. Baba is away and she is doing a shudder like his. Radha is wicked. She imitates Baba and the headman, his servants, even the devotees who crowd the temple. She imitates us as well, and it is not always funny, but we laugh because she is our only friend.
Radha and we live in a tiny room at the back of the compound, partitioned off from the larger one that Baba uses. Radha’s mother used to look after us when we were younger (“Even goddesses need their nappies changed,” Baba would joke). But she’s dead now, and Radha does the cooking and cleaning. She also helps us with dressing up each day, easing us into the scratchy costumes and many garlands we must wear as goddess.
We love Radha. We love how beautiful she is, how silken her hair, how supple her arms. We love the brightness of her smile, the quick movements of her eyes. We love the songs she sings to us when we wake in terror from our dreams, and the way she holds us when Baba comes at us with his cane.
We love that she can go out into the bazaar and return with stories to tell us. We tried to go with her once, when we were about three. Baba caught us. When the weals on our back healed and we could walk again, we discovered the temple gates were locked and only Baba had the key.
We should love Baba too, because he has saved us and raised us and made us a goddess. We try.
Radha hates Baba. She never says so, but we see it in her eyes when he talks to her, and when he beats us.
Radha used to go to school in the upper village. We asked to go too.
“You are a goddess, a sacred goddess – can’t you get that into your ugly misshapen head?” Baba yelled. “What do you need an education for?”
Then five years ago, Radha turned twelve and started to bleed every month, and Baba pulled her out of school because he wouldn’t have her sitting with boys anymore. She was sad because she liked getting away from the temple. We were glad, because we got to be with her all day.
We do not bleed yet, though Radha says we are now fourteen.
“Maybe goddesses don’t bleed,” we say.
“You are not a real goddess,” Radha scoffs.
” I know.”
“And I know there’s no Bindiya and no Chanda either. Don’t tell lies.”
“Bitch,” says Bindiya.
“All right,” we say.
We love Radha.
We all hate the headman, even Baba.
The temple belongs to the headman and so does the powder and salve business.
The headman bows before us at the temple on the rare days that he visits. He sings louder than anyone else, swears by the powers of the powders and ointments that he sells in our name. But when he returns each evening to empty the collection box and discuss the day’s sales with Baba, he is different. “Sit still, stupid cow!” he says. “What were you fidgeting about for today? It’s bad for business.”
“Thieving scoundrel!” mutters Baba. (Baba would probably like Bindiya.) “He’ll sell his grandmother for two rupees.” But before the headman, he is quiet and deferential, and never talks out of turn.
Sometimes we imagine being a real goddess. Granting boons to the good, punishing evil. We stand before the mirror and practice our goddess voice.
More often, we imagine running away. But where would we go?
We ask Radha.
A dirt road starts at the edge of the bazaar and twists and turns down the hill, past the upper village, then on past the lower village.
And what’s beyond that?
Ten kilometres downhill, it meets the district road. “With buses,” she says. “Buses that take you to the city.”
That’s where we should go, Radha says. The big city where people can disappear forever. Like fish in the sea.
Even people with three heads and six arms?
Anyone, says Radha, with great conviction. Anyone. She has never been beyond the upper village herself.
On days when the drink takes over, Baba usually beats us. But he also tells stories, convoluted ramblings through mythology that all seem to lead to his favourite topic – the pure and the defiling. There are gods, and humans and asuras, he says, and the gods are meant to show the asuras their place, and the humans are duty bound to help.
Like in the Dashavataar, the story we love best, about the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu is the Supreme Preserver of Life and he descends to earth each time a great evil rears its head.
The first is Matsya avatar, when Vishnu takes the form of a fish to outwit an asura, who stole the holy scriptures right from under Lord Brahma’s nose.
Which one, Bindiya says each time. Brahma is, after all, four headed.
Kurma avatar is next, when Vishnu turns into a turtle to aid the churning of the ocean, to extract both deadly venom and divine nectar. Lord Shiva swallows the venom, which is why his throat is blue. The gods trick the asuras out of their share, and drink all the nectar themselves. Lord Vishnu aids the trickery
Narasimha, a man with the head of a lion, who lays an evil asura across his knee and tears his chest open.
Vamana, a dwarf who tramples wicked Bali underfoot , sending him straight into the underworld.
Boar-headed Varaha. Rama. Krishna. Axe-wielding Parasurama. Buddha.
And last of all – Kalki, Baba’s favourite. The one who will rid the world in this age of all its evil asuras.
What is evil, Baba, we ask.
People who think they are better than us, he says. He is usually at the end of his bottle by this time and the words slip and slide against each other. People who should be grateful they get to eat our leftovers and clean our outhouses. People who think they can be better than us by answering back and wearing pant-shirt and learning English from the missionaries.
He means the lower village.
There is a crack in the rear compound wall, and we spy on the meheri through it. She is old, her skin hanging in folds from her neck, and she walks up the hill each day from the lower village to clean our outhouse. Sometimes her grandson brings her on the back of his bicycle. We watch, waiting for them to do something evil. Mostly, we just watch him.
This is his evil. He is tall and slender and beautiful as a moonless night. Sometimes he sings, strange haunting melodies that stay with us all day. Sometimes he brings a handful of grain and tosses it on the ground by the wall for the birds. Once he brings fruit and a monkey climbs down from a tree to take it from his hands. We glare at it in envy.
His name is Kishore, Radha whispers, pushing us aside for a better look. He goes to the missionary–run centre in his village and learns woodwork. He can write his name in English. He rides a cycle downhill on only one wheel. His smile is just like a famous film star’s.
We watch Kishore, and then we watch Radha watching him.
“You can’t tell Baba, Muniya! Promise me!”
“Promise! But you know he won’t allow it. You know what he says about – them.”
“He is going to take me away from all this.” She waves her hand, indicating everything around her. Including us. “To the city. No one cares about these silly things there.”
I imagine them as fish, swimming together in the sea.
What about us, we ask. We’d be alone.
“You!” she laughs bitterly. “You are Baba’s treasure! His golden goose! I’m a prisoner here, trapped with the two of you!”
Then she weeps and holds me close and says she is sorry, and could we not see how frightened she was, how the headman’s eyes had begun to leave slimy trails on her body?
We love Radha and we wish her well. We keep her secret and help her plan her escape, but each day a knife turns a little deeper in our heart and each night our dreams turn on us with ever-increasing fury.
Two weeks later, on the night of our festival, we do our best to distract Baba. We don our heavy costume and sit in the rickety palanquin that will be carried through the village. We smile and bless, smile and bless, and all the while Bindiya searches for signs of trouble. She finds none. We return to the gaudy dais where Baba will tell our story. We look down at our devotees, chanting and swaying to the beat of the drums and all we want is for Radha to come back.
Is that why they are caught? Because we wished too hard?
They almost make it, Kishore and Radha. They get past the upper village and the lower. They make it down ten kilometres of treacherous dirt road. They reach the bus stop and wait to be washed out to sea. The bus never arrives. The headman does.
Baba has just reached his shudder when the headman’s jeep screeches into the square. Something is flung at Baba’s feet. Radha and Kishore. Their hands and feet are bound, her face bruised and terrified. Kishore is unconscious, his eyes swollen shut and his blood seeps slowly out of a gash in his forehead.
Baba stands rooted to the ground as the headman begins screaming about laws and violating God’s orders. His eyes move from Radha to Kishore and back again, then widen as he realizes what is before him. The headman’s voice rises, rises again and now he is talking about punishment and righting evil. The crowd stirs.
Out in the back, we see the headman’s men surround the villagers behind the rope. Each one of the men is armed.
“Stop!” we scream. And again, “STOP!”
“What are you doing?” Bindiya screeches. “She did this to herself, the slut!” But we cannot let them hurt Radha. We struggle to our feet and step forward. We raise our arms – the two that work – and we try to make our voice as thunderous and commanding as we can. Our goddess voice. “STOP!”
The crowd freezes. We have never spoken before. Never. The square is so quiet we hear a fly buzz ten feet away, around Baba’s head.
“We are Goddess!” we say. “We decide the law.”
The air is electric now. The villagers stand stunned. People scream, someone faints. A woman throws herself to the ground and begins chanting.
We point at Radha and Kishore.
“We bless this marriage. In our eyes they are equal.”
The villagers gasp. A shout is hurled our way, then another.
“We have watched over you all these years,” we say. “We have raised you. Now obey our command!”
“You sound like Baba,” Bindiya chuckles.
The crowd quivers, looks at us, then at the headman. He is speechless as well, staring at us in disbelief.
This is it, we think. We can do this. We will right this injustice now. A song, strange yet familiar, rings in our ear, a slow keening that we mistake for Bindiya’s.
We begin to speak again, but never finish, because Baba has returned to life.
“Possessed!” he is screaming. “Our goddess is possessed! The witch has done this!” He hurls us to the ground, shrieking abuse. In his eyes, fully alive at last, is the madness that has always lurked there.
“We are goddess!” we scream again, but now the headman lurches into action, and his words draw the crowd away.
“Help us!” we scream. “Help!”
The crowd surges forward, but not to save us. It is a baying and hungry beast, and it swallows Radha and Kishore. Through the blows that Baba rains down on us, we hear her scream, then fall silent. When the beast has finished with them, it turns toward the villagers behind the rope, the ones the headman’s men have prevented from leaving. The ones who will pay for their bewitched goddess and Kishore’s law breaking.
“You bitch!” Baba snarls. “You dare to defy me?” The blows find our back, our face, our stomach. Over the sound of Bindiya screaming and Muniya sobbing and that terrible wail behind it all, we feel ourselves split open.
Is this a dream?
For here is that terrible voice and here its song, and here the fierce heat that sears through our lungs and scorches the air around us. The voice grows louder and louder with each note until it is the only sound in the universe. It surges through our sinews, filling us with a power we have never known before yet recognize at once.
Bindiya is singing along in joyous rage, and now Muniya joins the chorus and we lift ourselves off the ground, on the wings of their melody. The words come to us, words we have always known though we have never sung them before. They have been as an animal within us, caged for far too long. We set it free.
At our shoulders, six arms come to life and rise up towards the sky. About our face, two new pairs of eyes uncrumple and fix their terrible light on the world. They search for the evil they must destroy. They find it.
We are Kurma! we sing, and the echo of our voice ricochets around the universe. We are Kurma and we churn the ocean of our fury and release its venom and make you swallow it.
We are Vamana! we shriek, as the headman’s’ servants become as ripe plums under our foot.
We are Narasimha! we roar, and here is the headman across our knee and here his heart, beating warm and pliant in our hands!
We are Kalki, Baba! Kalki! And Baba is a straw doll in our hands and we have never loved him as much as we do now, with his bones crumbling between our fingers and his blood slaking our thirst.
How they run, these helpers of the gods, scattering like mice before us. How they scramble to get away from the one they have worshipped all their lives. We give them the blessing they deserve, their bones driven into the underworld, their blood a river they can drown their sorrows in. Follow the river, Radha, we shriek.Follow it to the sea.
And at last, as we stand singing against the vermilion sky, as mother earth opens her arms to greet us and father fire raises his head over the village and the district and the world, as they face each other again in the lust that spawned us, and begin to battle anew, at last do we know where our song comes from, whose throat has returned it to us.
Chanda is finally awake.
About: When not writing and illustrating children’s books, Lavanya Karthik writes creepy tales about three-headed mutants and clockwork women. Her short fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres; her comics have appeared in Comix India Vol. 2 and 4, Kindle Magazine and several issues of the Indian Chicken Soup For The Soul series. She also relives her misadventures in writing, parenting and pretending to be sane, through her comic strip Maya Bizarre. She also blogs at lavanyakarthik.wordpress.com
This story was originally published at Crossed Genres.